Information experience

Tolman’s Tales

What experience or information led you to that belief?

A friend gave me a thought-provoking article from The Wall Street Journal which made a compelling argument that, while America appears profoundly divided at this moment, we are closer together than we think, if we just talk a bit about how each of our opinions were formed.

At our core, we are all just experiences wrapped in skin. I will be a slightly different Jeff Tolman tomorrow because of the information I take in, and incidences I experience, today. We are evolutionary beasts, we humans.

I have a friend who hates yard work. I despise yard work, he hates it more. One day, chatting, he told a story of his childhood. Growing up, he could go play when the weeds were all pulled. The weeds were seldom all pulled, so he spent more of his summers on his knees weeding than he did riding bikes and building forts with his friends. My friend swore he wouldn’t do yard work as an adult. He’d fulfilled his lifetime quota of yard work by the time he could drive. Fortunately, he is able to hire folks to tend to his yard.

Each of us are filled with opinions. Most have some internal basis. Maybe we don’t like left-handed people because a lefty beat the snot out of us or our dad. Maybe every movie villain seems to be a southpaw, so you have drawn a conclusion that left-handers have less scruples than we righties. Whatever the case, few people wake up and say “Today I have going to be hacked off at farmers who grow beans.” That’s just not what people do.

The WSJ article convinced me I need to be a better detective conversationalist. When someone says “I think President Trump is the greatest truth-teller of all time!” rather than flinch or roll my eyes, I need to be more astute about finding the genesis of that belief. A new sentence I am adding to my conversational quiver is “What experience or information led you to that belief?” Maybe the Trump-as-a-truth-teller would say, ‘I called The White House and asked for a flag to put on my late Uncle’s grave for Memorial Day and it came just as promised. His people said it would come, and it did. They are all truth-tellers in my opinion.’ Or ‘I have read a lot about Kim Jong Un and, like Mr. Trump, have come to believe Kim is highly misunderstood.’ Whatever the answer, I will understand better how someone came to their belief.

A few weeks ago, one of my brothers-in-law and I watched the sun go down on our deck and talked about growing up. Me in Greybull, Wyoming, him an African-American in St. Louis. Our stories were often dissimilar.

He needed street smarts, I needed a bike to get to the Little League field and Grease Woods. As the evening went on we realized we’d come to many similar philosophical points from widely divergent roads, different experiences, different information.

After reading the article I looked at my own life and opinions. I was born in Wyoming, a natural conservative. As I have come to know more disadvantaged folks and seen how an opportunity can change a family for generations, I have become more liberal.

I have had the good fortune to travel a lot. My cross-pollination of cultures has led me to believe that we are one world and shouldn’t be “America First.”

For a time, we were poor. Slept on cots. Didn’t have a refrigerator. Barely holding on to a roof over our head. This changed when dad got a job. From that experience, I came to believe that any family can be a half-step from the streets, even mine, and having a job is a good thing.

From my 25 years on the Municipal Court Bench I have seen many failures, but some great successes. I have come to believe there is almost always the possibility of redemption.

Holding my grandkids, I believe we must take steps to make the world, and our nation, a solid foundation for the generations to come. We must, as a society, leave the campground better than how we found it.

Over the next few months I hope to meet with a couple of folks for coffee or a libation. To talk about family, community and some issues we appear to have a profound disagreement about. By the end of the conversation I hope to better understand what led them to their beliefs and share what led me to mine. My bet is we’ll find we are closer ideologically at the end of the get-together than we felt we were in the beginning. Each of us will be where we are based on some information we have ingested or experience that has touched our lives.

George Orwell perhaps said it best after he finally met, in person, poet Stephen Spender, who he’d convinced himself he hated:

“When you meet someone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas.”

What experience or information led you to that belief? A question that needs to be asked more often. A question that will often show us we are closer in opinion and philosophy than initially appeared.

— Jeff Tolman is a lawyer, Municipal Court judge, and periodic columnist for Kitsap News Group.